Tag Archives: orkney

The Tang Shipwreck and Orkney Simmens

Examples of plant fibre and plant parts used in construction: coir from the husks of the coconut, simmens and sookens from oat straw. The Tang Shipwreck, found in the Java Sea, its hull planks sewn with coir. House roofs in Orkney protected and insulated with oat rope. Traditional uses of unprocessed plant material brought to life through museums in Singapore and Orkney.

Coconut fibre binds 9thC wooden hulled ship

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore [1] hosts a major exhibition on the Tang Shipwreck, found in 1998 in the Java sea [2]. The ship carried pottery before it sank, including many porcelain bowls made during the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), far to the east of its resting place, and intended for export and sale to the middle east. They were decorated with homely designs, trees and flowers, but also fantastic sea creatures and other beasts (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Images of the Tang Shipwreck: a replica of the ship among examples of pottery; (upper right) a silver medallion; (lower right) bowl with fantastic sea monster; (lower left) a large pot in which many individual bowls were packed. From Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore (www.livingfield.co.uk).

It is not so much the surviving pottery and coins that caught the interest of the Living Field‘s roving reporters, but the way the ship’s hull was constructed. It was made of wooden planks, but they were not nailed or bound by iron. Rather they appear to have had holes bored in them through which coir fibre was passed to sew the planks together. The joints were bound with wadding and sealed with lime. The guidebook states ‘these techniques are typical of early ships made in the region of the (Arabian or Persian) Gulf and India’ [2].

The Tang ship was recreated using techniques as in the original and proved seaworthy during trials in 2010.

What of coir?

Coir comes from the husks of the coconut fruit [3]. The durability of coir can be seen in the many coconuts that are washed up on beaches throughout the region. Strands of the fibrous content of the husk appear clearer when the coconut has long exposure to salt water, during which the natural packing material disintegrates, allowing the coarse fibre to fall free.

Fig. 2 Coconut grove and palm-thatched hut typical on shores of the South China Sea (taken 1980s), discarded coconuts after food extracted (lower left), and part of a coconut in cross section showing the band of fibre about 5 cm wide (coir) between the inner kernel and the outer skin (www.curvedflatlands.co.uk).

Coconut Cocos nucifera is one of the most useful plants [3]: as food, drink, oil, medicinal, fermented alcohol, utensil, animal feed, fuel, roofing material, and more. In Europe, its flesh or ‘meat’ is widely used in oriental cooking, but more common is the coir fibre used to make mats and matting . The fibre surrounds the ‘nut’, the whole protected by an outer skin. More recent uses include the fibrous ‘compost’ in which some protected fruit crops are grown.

Orkney Simmens and sookens – oat rope

At that time of the Tang shipwreck, the Picts in Scotland were carving stones and cross-slabs, reaching a high point in European Celtic art. Like the Tang potters, they also depicted fabulous monsters. Little is known of how they built their ships, but there is no equivalent of coir here, nothing quite so strong and durable that grows ready-made on trees, except perhaps the stems of heather and worked willow.

A material moderately strong and durable was however used to make rope, and that was straw from the oat crop. The distant origins of oat-rope are uncertain, but it was still in use until recently in Orkney where it was called simmens, used in roofing and securing hay ricks [4].

Fig. 3 Inside the Corrigall and Kirkbuster Museums on Orkney Mainland [5], showing plaited oat rope or simmens, balled for storage, and a rope hanging across the room over the fireplace (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Simmens is plaited from oat straw by hand, then typically stored as balls (Fig. 3). Its most celebrated usage was as a roofing material. It was looped from one of the eaves, over the top of the roof, down the other side, secured there and then looped back again, a procedure called needling.

The simmens rope was packed tightly to form a complete covering. In some places, straw was packed between successive layers of simmens and the roof completed with a final layer weighted down at the eaves by stones.

Where roof-stones were available, it was used as sarking, an inner layer, both as insulation and to secure thatch below the stone roof tiles. Vast quantities of oat straw – probably a few kilometers of it – were needed for a single house [4]. There must have been similarly vast quantities of long-stemmed oat grown to provide the straw.

The last few roofs that used it in Orkney were examined in the 1990s, but no attempt was made to conserve original simmens and it has all but disappeared. Could simmens be recreated today? One obstacle is ‘obtaining regular supplies of uncrushed, long-stemmed straw and the skill and amount of labour required to make and apply the simmens’ [4].

Simmens is on display at the Corrigall Farm Museum and the Kirkbuster Museum in Orkney [5]. Also demonstrated (on request) is a quick method of making temporary ‘rope’ or sookans from straw using a tool shown in Fig. 4. The tool is turned by one person, straw being fed through the hook, and the twisted straw pulled through by another.

Fig. 4 Oat plants, probably bristle oat Avena strigosa, a tool used for twisting the oat straw into sookans and twisting in progress, Corrigall and Kirkbuster Museums Orkney (www.livingfield.co.uk).

Fibre unprocessed

These two plants, coconut and oat, are two of a number from which structural fibres can be extracted and used without the need for any highly technical processing (though coir extraction takes much effort and skill). They and others like them, including sisal and heather, would likely have been used from well before settled farming.

The two museums visited in 2019 are both excellent in their own way, each displaying ancient crafts and allowing people to see, and in Orkney touch, the exhibits. We have to admire how the peoples from mediaeval times back through Iron, Bronze and Stone ages built their ships, strong enough to cross some of the most dangerous seas around the Northern Isles.

Sources, links

[1] Asian Civilisations Museum is by the river in Singapore. Web site: https://www.acm.org.sg

[2] The Tang Shipwreck exhibition is on permanent display at ACM – superb layout and information. The museum offers a free guide book from which the information given here was taken, but much more detail can be found in a book sold there with the title The Tang Shipwreck and on Wikipedia at the Belitung Shipwreck (another name for it) which covers construction and contents and also the controversy surrounding excavation.

[3] Coconut fibre or coir is a protective coating between the inner ‘shell’ that shields the ‘flesh’ and milk and the outer tough skin. The fibre has become a substitute for peat in some horticultural uses, but its transport to Europe from the tropics is hardly sustainable as is sometimes claimed. The Wikipedia entry is useful: Coir. The Living Field relies for information on Burkhill’s massive treatise on the uses of plants (A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsular, 1935, 1966) which describes the long process by which coir is extracted and made ready for use.

[4] Simmens (but also simmans and simmons in various modern sources) is made by plaiting oat straw. A photograph of simmens being used to thatch a roof is reproduced on the Living Field site at 5000/Fibres. The Scottish National Dictionary under Simmen gives examples of usage over the past few hundred years and indicates a Norse origin. Its use in roofing is described in the booklet:

Newman, P, Newman A. 1991. Simmens and strae: thatched roofs in Orkney. Extracted from ‘Vernacular building’ published by the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Group. Herald Printshop, Kirkwall.

[5] Orkney museums provide authoritative and very helpful and practical guidance to natural products and past farming. The main site is in Kirkwall – The Orkney Museum. The Corrigall Farm Museum at Harray and the Kirkbuster Museum Birsay are both in restored farm buildings.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook .com.

Bere country

A note in the Bere-line – a survey of bere barley, an old corn landrace. Distribution of bere and barley in the 1850s: bere to the north and west, barley to the east and centre. Loss of bere and many other crops from the late 1800s. Declines in crop diversity. 

Previous notes in the bere-line compared bere barley and the improved two-row barleys in several collections and census records from the 1800s. By the 1850s, bere was still recognised and catalogued in terms of several variants [1] but most named types of barley were of the two-row form.

In the crop census of 1854 [2, 3], itself a milestone in the description of agriculture, bere occupied about 10% of the area of barley, but was still recorded throughout the country.

Distribution of bere in the 1850s

The census of 1854 was based on the pre-1890s counties, administrative areas that had been in existence, though not unaltered, for many hundreds of years [4, 5]. A map of the counties is shown at Sources below.

The areas sown with bere and barley in 1854 are shown in Fig. 1. The centre of each circle is positioned near the centre of one of the old counties. The map is partitioned into present administrative areas [6].

The area of each circle represents the relative area of crop in each county. The largest circle in the bere map is about 3000 acres (1,200 hectares) while the largest on the barley map is 28,000 areas (11,300 hectares). The map appears to show no or little bere or barley was grown in the western islands, but they were part of mainland counties at that time, so the crops grown there were included within circles  located on the mainland.

Fig. 1 Distribution of bere (left) and barley (right) from the 1854 census, each circle representing the area of crop in one of the pre-1890s counties. The largest bere circle is about ten times smaller than the largest barley. The dashed line near the top indicates Shetland is displaced downwards in this depiction. Orkney and Shetland formed one area in the census: bere on the left represented by the large circle just above Orkney; the arrow on the right pointing to the small area grown with barley. Click on the map to see a larger image. Original map outline from [6]. Source of data [3].

The distribution of bere confirms it was grown country-wide, from the Borders to Orkney and Shetland. Yet the areas sown to bere were very small in counties to the east and south east. It seems to have almost faded out in these places but remained strong in the north in Caithness, in the south-west in Argyll and in the northern islands, Orkney and Shetland. Bere was therefore grown in colder, wetter climates and poorer soils than could be profitably grown with the two-row types.

At this time, barley was the preferred crop in the east central and south east, which are now the typical, high-yielding grain producing regions of the country. Barley was not the major cereal in the 1800s. Oat was still grown over a much greater area. But the regions occupied by barley in the 1850s are those in which it rose to dominance in the period 1940-1960 to become by far the most widely grown cereal.

Bere’s decline

One of the main difficulties with charting the fall of bere is the absence of reliable records before and in the early 1800s.  Even its decline into the early 1900s is obscure because barley and bere were combined in the annual census of area and yield [7]. 

The reasons for bere’s later decline to near extinction are uncertain and would have differed between regions. The improving two-rowed barleys were probably easier to manage and more reliable yielders than bere in most parts of the country. There were regional variations – in Shetland, for example [10] the barleys as a whole declined fourfold from 1890 to 1930 and then continued to fall due to a rise in rotational grass and sheep.

Many changes occurred in the 150 years from the 1854 census, including major reductions of other crops – other than grass – grown for animal feed, including turnips and swedes, forage (leaf ) brassicas, grain legumes and mashlum, a traditional crop mix of oats and beans [8]. The loss of bere was part of that change. 

Yet bere did not die out. This traditional landrace is still grown and finding high-value uses in food and drink [9, 10]. There’s hope still – buy some bere meal and get cooking!

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk. Gladys Wright and Jackie Thompson grow the bere and barley crops in the Living Field Garden.

Sources, references, links

[1] Lawson and Sons synopsis of the vegetable products of Scotand: Bere in Lawsons synopsis of 1852.

[2] Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. For history and archives: https://archive.rhass.org.uk://archive.rhass.org.uk

[3] Thorburn T. 1855. Diagrams, Agricultural Statistics of Scotland for 1854. London: Effingham Wilson. More at this Living Field article on Thorburn’s Diagrams. Original available in part through the web. 

[4] The Historic Counties Trust and the Historic Counties Borders project: http://www.county-borders.co.uk/historiccountiestrust/index.html. See also Great Britain and Ireland – interactive county map at https://wikishire.co.uk/map/ 

[5] Shires of Scotland (Scotland historic counties before 1890) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shires_of_Scotland gives the history of the counties and map. The map opposite showing counties by number, except Orkney and Zetland (as it was then named) is from Undiscovered Scotland at Scottish Counties until 1890.

[6] Scotland map, outline with modern administrative regions: www.d-maps.com, free map, edited by the author.

[7] Agricultural Statistics 1912. Acreage and live stock returns of Scotland. Board of Agriculture for Scotland. HMSO. A useful starting point since it gives crop-areas back to 1902.

[8] Bean-oat or pea-oat mixed crop – an article on the Living field web site at Mashlum – a traditional mix of oats and beans.

[9] See Barony Mills’s web site  for preparation and uses of bere meal:  http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm. The Living Field web site offers several of Grannie Kate’s recipes for bere meal, usually mixed with other cereals: seeded oatcakes with beremeal, bere bannocks, bere shortbread and bere scones.

[10] For a summary of cereal growing on Shetland, its decline and potential: Martin, P. 2015. Review of cereal growing in Shetland. Agronomy Institute, Orkney College. To find the PDF online, search for ‘cereal shetland agronomy institute 2015″.

Links to other Living Field articles on bere

The bere line – rhymes with hairline : summary of all links to bere on this site.

Landrace 1 – bere : notes on the barley landrace and crops on Orkney.

The horizontal water mills at Huxter: Shetland’s horizontal water mills.


Landrace 1 – bere

Barley Hordeum vulgare has been grown here as a crop for many thousands of years. Some of the earliest charred remains of seed found in neolithic settlements were of barley.  It has not always been the most widely grown corn – oat had that status a century ago – but now barley covers more acres than wheat and much more than oat, its main products whisky and animal food.

Most modern varieties of barley are supplied by seed merchants. The seed for each variety is grown and bulked under controlled conditions that minimise impurity and keep the line genetically uniform, so each has a particular ‘look’ and growth characteristics and suitability for different uses. At one time however, all our crops were maintained as landraces, as seed from one harvest saved for the next. (See What are landraces?) Few landraces remain and one of those is bere barley.

Bere canopy, image modified to show structure, green bere crop in Orkney and seascapes (KM and GR Squire)
Bere canopy, image modified to show structure, green bere crop in Orkney and Orkney seascapes (KM and GR Squire)

Where did bere come from?

Like all our corn, or cereal, crops, barley started life in the eastern Mediterranean or west Asia when crops were domesticated from wild grasses around 10,000 years ago. From there it came west and north reaching the croplands around 5000 years ago, well after the ice retreated.  The earlier Living Field web site had the following paragraph –

“Imagine the small bags of seed, carried overland step by step, century upon century, from its site of domestication to the east of what is now Europe, and then by small boats to Iberia, then Brittany and north to the stone age settlements of the north-east Atlantic coasts, or else by other routes through central Europe and across the North Sea. How many times must those bags have perished and how many times must the boatman have reached dry land to see the seed rotted and the crops fail. And yet, 5000 years or more later, we still have a landrace of barley, known as bere (sounding in the north more like bear than beer) and still grown for special food and drink.”

When you see or experience the seas around Orkney (images above) and the other islands, you wonder how our early settlers managed to get here carrying bags of grain in their small boats.

Does any of that ancient barley remain?

Is there a continuous ‘bere line’ from the stone age? There can be no certainty. Landraces can be erased by natural calamities, or by peoples moving or changing their way of life. When a seed stock was lost, it might have taken centuries for new seed to be brought in. Later, waves of migrants from south and east would have brought their own seed with them.  Where the new seed came from  is not clear.  What we can say is that the bere still grown today is very different from modern varieties.

In Lawson & Son’s catalogue of 1852, bere or rough barley, was listed among the four-row barleys. Most of the barleys at that time were two-row.  The number of rows refers to the alignment of grain on the ear, obvious when you see it in two- and six-row types.

The four-row types, as Lawson and Son suggest, are probably better classified as structural variants of the six-row types. But the four-rows look different from the six-rows, so on the Living Field site, we will continue to call bere four-row. In the rough and tumble of subsistence agriculture over the millennia, the bere landrace, maintained as harvested seed saved from year to year, must have contained at various times, as well as the four-row, two- and six-row types within it.  Purity is not a feature of landraces.

Bere has now almost disappeared except in some remote corners and most commercial fields you will see are two-row. Yet bere has great significance as a traditional crop, a true heritage and a possible source of genetic material for future crops.

Barony Mills, Birsay Orkney, showing interior, old grinding wheel, tackle, water wheel with new wooden paddles (Squire)

Barony Mills, Birsay Orkney, showing interior, old grinding wheel, tackle, water wheel with new wooden paddles, 2011 (Squire)

The Orkney bere

A landrace of barley is still grown and used in a few places, notably in Orkney, where fields are gown each year to supply grain to the Barony Mills, near Birsay (images above). When the grain starts to fill and ripen, it has strong, characteristic red bands on the outer husk of the grain (images below) and long, tough awns.

As in most barleys, the protective coating around the grain does not fall off after harvest (as it does in modern wheat, for example), so the husks and awns have to be removed to get the bere meal (flour).  Once, bere grain and other corn was ground between stones, then in stone saddle querns and later by hand-turned stone wheels, one on top of the other, and then by great mechanised grindstones powered by wind or water.

The Barony Mills in Orkney grind local bere grain into flour by great water-powered wheels. The Mills sell bere meal to the public (web link below). Bere grain is also sold to a few distilleries to add that something to the malt whiskey.

Barony Mills is an excellent place  – an essential visit for anyone interested in rare grain and flour and living industrial heritage; and if it’s spring or summer, ask for directions to the bere fields.

The Living Field’s bere crops

The garden has grown bere for several years. The crop is grown in the Garden as a landrace – seed is harvested, saved over the winter and sown the next spring.

The bere seed germinates quickly, after just a few days, and once outside is vigorous in its vegetative phase and then flowers and seeds profusely. As a seed stock it does not give any problems and requires no special treatment. As with all seed, it has to be kept dry between harvest and the next sowing.

The red striping on the outer husk, or covering of the grain, is visible upper right and lower left below. The seeding ‘ears’ tend to bend and together the awns form an asymmetrical fan, visible in the image at the top of the page and in the one upper left below.

Bere grown in the Living Field Garden and a sample of grain lower right (Living Field collection).
Bere grown in the Living Field Garden and a sample of grain lower right (Living Field collection).

Each year, a few two-row plants emerge in the bere. They could be impurities introduced from commercial varieties grown in the garden? We take them out to preserve the general bere character.

Growing bere and other landraces in the Garden has been  rewarding for the team and brought great interest among visitors. We start it off in April, it begins to flower in early June and is ready for harvest usually in August. It does not seem to have changed much in the last 180 years: Lawson and Son, in their experimental trials of 1835, record they sowed it on 7 April and it matured on 12 August after 127 days.

References, sources

The Living Field’s original bere seed was given to us by the Agronomy Unit at Orkney College. For which, many thanks. Barony Mills, Birsay, Orkney, also gave us a couple of bags of grain. We have bought flour from them for demonstrations at various open days. Thanks to miller Rae Philips for advice.

Gladys Wright, Linda Ford and Jackie Thompson grow the bere crops and maintain the seed stocks for the Living Field garden. Text and images by Geoff Squire (unless stated).

Sources and references


Dickson C, Dickson J. 2000. Plants and people in ancient Scotland. Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Fenton A (ed). 2007. The food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Describes the many uses of bere meal).

Fenton A (ed). 2011. Farming and the land. Volume 2 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Publisher: John Donald. (Many references to growing bere.)

Lawson P and Son. 1852. Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: Private Press of Peter Lawson and Son.

Bere on the Living Field web site

The bere line – rhymes with hairline – random notes on the origin and nature of bere, including Thorburn’s Diagrams – acreage and yield or bere and barley in the mid-1800s, and Bere, bear, bair, beir, bygg – names for bere in Old Scots, (also links to article with old names and for other cereals).

What are landraces? – introduction to crop landraces.

Web links

Barony Mills, Orkney: http://www.birsay.org.uk/baronymill.htm.

Argo’s Bakery, Stromness: http://www.argosbakery.co.uk

And see the page on miller Rae Phillips at Slow Food UK: http://www.slowfood.org.uk/ff-producers/producer-rae-phillips-barony-mills-beremeal/

Orkney College, Agronomy Institute: http://www.agronomy.uhi.ac.uk

SASA Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (previously Scottish Agricultural Science Agency or ‘East Craigs’): Scottish landraces and traditional varieties 

Botanical name

The botanical or latin name Hordeum vulgare is used on this web site to cover all types of two-, four- and six-row cultivated barley. Some taxonomies separate the two- and six-row as different species, but where does that leave the four-row? Others suggest they are are better classed as sub-species of Hordeum vulgare. 

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

[Last update 13 September 2016]